Texas activists tackle anti-LGBT bullying in schools

by Michelle Parsons

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday March 9, 2010

In lieu of the ever-present issue of anti-gay bullying in schools, Equality Texas, Out Youth, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Anti-Defamation League held public forums in Austin, Houston and San Antonio late last year to open lines of communication between parents, school officials and LGBT students.

So whatever came of these forums?

Randall Terrell, political director of Equality Texas, said these meetings helped to generate a discussion about how to better protect all students, LGBT or otherwise.

"We had people who didn't know what the problem was or what it looked like," he said.

Of the many topics discussed, calls for more Gay-Straight Alliances in middle and high schools were singled out as the cheapest and most effective means to stop harassment.

"Just the mere presence of GSAs in schools results in a 10 to 15 percent drop in bullying," Terrell said.

Deborah Healy, director of Northside ISD's guidance department and panelist at the San Antonio forum, agreed.

"I also think a strong outcome was the emphasis on GSAs," she said. "The alliances really promote a safe and respectful school community."

Terrell added GSAs would also curb dropout rates, which remains a big problem across the state. He said students are happier and more successful in schools in which they don't face harassment and bullying.

Another of the forums' outcomes was an emphasis on curriculum-based anti-bullying education for all grades, training programs for students that show bullying effects more than the victim.

"Bullying and harassment effects everybody ... it's the bystanders, too," Terrell said. "Kids who witness harassment feel disempowered and threatened and they need to speak out. We need to empower the student body."

As of this year, Texas holds a grade of C- by bullypolice.org, an organization that advocates better statewide anti-bully legislation.

"I've seen students that would try to stay in the bathroom all day so they would not be in the halls to subject themselves to bullying," Diana Groves, student intervention specialist for the Austin public school district, told KUT 90.5 FM in an interview. "It can be a real injury to self esteem that lasts a lifetime."

Activists complain the majority of Texas' school districts have yet to implement mechanisms to effectively track incidents of bullying.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, told KUT in the same interview this failure remains a serious problem.

"...The school districts will initially say, 'We don't have a problem with bullying and harassment,' and we ask, 'Well how many incidences of bullying and harassment were on your campus last year?'" he said. "And their answer is, 'We don't know because we don't track that,' to which our answer is 'Then how do you know you don't have a problem?'"

Incomplete state and local laws are another problem.

State Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) introduced House Bill 1323, which would have expanded, among other things, current definitions of bullying to include cyber harassment. The proposed legislation would also mandate the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in incident reports.

The bill died last year, but Terrell says even though some school and government administrators remain fearful of potential controversy, he remains optimistic the bill will pass in next year's legislative session

"HB 1323 plugs some holes in current Texas legislation," Terrell said.

Meanwhile, Youth First Texas and other local organizations have launched campaigns, such as the Bully Suicide Project, to shed more light onto the issue. Equality Texas is planning to hold in Dallas' mid-cities area and El Paso.

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